In 2018 wildfires around the globe have been dramatic, prompting headlines about the world being on fire. The 2018 fire season is unusual in that so many places are experiencing major fires at the same time. California and some areas in Australia were hard hit, but these places are used to wildfires.
The political aftermath of catastrophic firestorms in both Australia and the United States has involved commissions or parliamentary inquiries, with terms of reference that include investigation into assessing or improving fire management policies. Part of these policies is the use of prescribed burning for fuel reduction, which has a long history in Australia but less so in the United States. Prescribed burning for fuel reduction has been heavily influenced by perceived or real understandings of Indigenous burning practices.
Daniel May is a PhD student at the Australian National University and on this episode of the podcast he explores the political and cultural influences of the historical debates surrounding understandings of Indigenous fire-use in Australia and the US. His aim is to expose the rhetorical strategies and political fault lines of the interest groups, past and present, attempting to influence policy making.
The first people to settle in Australia, ancestors of present day Aboriginals, arrived in Australia about 50,000 years ago. They took advantage of the lower sea levels that were the norm throughout the last 100,000 years and were the result of a cooling global climate – part of the last ice age cycle. The first people who entered Australia encountered a cooler and drier continent than at present. From about 35,000 years ago global temperatures and water availability declined even further culminating in the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), about 21,000 years ago. At this time, the Australian continent entered its driest and coolest period since modern humans colonized it. By 12,000 years ago the climate warmed rapidly, sea levels rose and climate began to ameliorate.
How did populations in Australia respond to these climate fluctuations? This episode of the podcast explores this question with Alan Williams, an archaeologist and graduate student in the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University in Canberra, and an Aboriginal Heritage Team Leader at AHMS Pty Ltd. Alan’s research explores the responses and adaptations by Aboriginal people to climate change through time.
Williams, A.N. (2012) The use of summed radiocarbon probability distributions in archaeology: A review of methods. Journal of Archaeological Science, 39: 578-589.
Williams, A.N. (2013) A new population curve for prehistoric Australia. Proceedings of the Royal Society B,280: 20130486.
Williams, A.N., Ulm, S., Smith, M.A., Reid, J. (2014) AustArch: A Database of 14C and Non-14C Ages from Archaeological Sites in Australia – Composition, Compilation and Review (Data Paper). Internet Archaeology 36, doi:10.11141/ia.36.6
Williams, A.N., Atkinson, F., Lau, M., Toms, P. (in press) A Glacial cryptic refuge in southeast Australia: Human occupation and mobility from 36,000 years ago in the Sydney Basin, New South Wales. Journal of Quaternary Science.
Williams, A.N., Ulm, S., Turney, C.S.M., Rodhe, D., White, G., Cook, A.R. (submitted) The Establishment of Complex Society in Prehistoric Australia: Demographic and Mobility Changes in the Late Holocene.
Williams, Alan N., Ulm, Sean, Cook, Andrew R., Langley, Michelle C., and Collard, Mark, “Human refugia in Australia during the Last Glacial Maximum and Terminal Pleistocene: a geospatial analysis of the 25-12 ka Australian archaeological record”, Journal of Archaeological Science, 2013, 40 (12). pp. 4612-4625. See also: “How aboriginal Australians coped with the last ice age.”, ScienceDaily, 23 September 2013.
Williams, A.N., Ulm, S., Goodwin, I., Smith, M.A., “Hunter-Gatherer Response to Late Holocene Climatic Variability in Northern and Central Australia”, Journal of Quaternary Science, 2010, 25(6): 831-838.
Most of these and other papers can be requested from Alan Williams’ Academia.edu page.
Australia is a country of extremes: it can be extremely hot and dry but also wet and prone to very big floods and its soils are poor and thin. Regardless of these extremes farmers have carved out livelihoods in his hostile environment. It is the story of how Australian farmers have tried to grow food and cotton, and conserve the environment, with all the environmental ignorance, the violence and courage that marked this endeavour. A new book entitled The Broken Promise of Agricultural Progress. An Environmental History journeys to the inland plains of Australia and tells the story of how the arrival of modern agriculture promised ecological and social stability but instead descended into dysfunction.
This episode of the podcast features Cameron Muir, a researcher at the Australian National University and author of The Broken Promise of Agricultural Progress. This fascinating book brings together the fields of environmental, cultural and agricultural history as well as political history. It is a true tour de force that starts in regional Australia but also touches on the global food system.
Map of the The Murray-Darling river system with the Murrumbidgee river in red. Source: Wikipedia
Australia is a dry continent and as a result Australian ecologies can generally be characterised as “boom and bust” and are significantly driven by intermittent and unpredictable wet “booms” and dry “busts”. The populations and movements of many animals are considerably influenced by these wet and dry periods. Birds tend to be “nomadic” and go where the water is. Native Australian ducks are no exception.
Before the arrival of Europeans and their agriculture, ducks only had to compete with other native birds and animals, as well as Aboriginal hunters.
However, the introduction of water intensive agricultural activity by Europeans changed all this and in particular rice cultivation has been implicated in altering the Murrumbidgee river system in Australia, and as a result the habitat for ducks. The guest on this episode of the podcast is Emily O’Gorman, an Associate Research Fellow at the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research of the University of Wollongong. She is an expert on Australian flooding and river history and examines on this podcast the ways in which ducks as well as people negotiated the changing water landscapes of the Murrumbidgee River caused by the creation of rice paddies.
Information on Emily O’Gorman’s book Flood Country: An Environmental History of the Murray-Darling Basin – Info from the Publisher.
This podcast is entirely devoted to Australian environmental history. Libby Robin talks about the unique nature of Australian environmental history including the connection between deep and modern history, poor soils, fire, Aboriginal history and European settlement. John Dargavel, former president of the Australian Forest History Society discusses the issues and interests in Australian forest history.